Real Time Short Stories

Posts Tagged ‘sheherazade

Iraqi-ChristTen years ago, the particular context in which the British government chose to make April Fools of its citizens was the war in Iraq. This year, Iraq would seem a very exotic focal point for our denigration when the current government is so busy reducing our domestic certainties – a health service, a welfare state, a justice system – to the status of a blooper reel among the Extras on Michael Gove’s History of Great Britain DVD. When we’re losing track of who we are, of why we even exist as social animals, it is a challenge to contemplate the experience of Iraqis, by whom reality has, during these ten years, been viewed in a perpetual nightmarish REM. Yet Hassan Blasim‘s second collection for Comma Press speaks to our own, particularlised sensations of powerlessness, as much as to the self-evident contexts of war, exile and the way these narratives of suffering become absorbed into a nation’s culture and myths.

A simple summary of The Iraqi Christ: this is the most urgent writing you will read in short fiction or any other literary format this year. To read these stories is to immerse yourself in tragedy and horror. The imprint of real lives – Blasim’s and those he has encountered – is as evident on the printed page here as lipstick traces on a cigarette, exacerbating the sense of grief that accompanies each story. Blasim’s debut collection for Comma, 2009’s The Madman Of Freedom Square (from which “The Reality and the Record” provided a previous post for this site), was an eloquent, retching cry of disgust; The Iraqi Christ seems to be steeped more in sorrow. And the incredible part is that, from this unimaginable sorrow, what emerges is a savage, unbearable beauty.

The stories portray characters locked in states of fretful, at times lurid, sensory dissonance. If you knew nothing of this book or Blasim’s literary antecedents other than David Eckersall’s cover design, pictured above, you might guess that Franz Kafka sits somewhere in the frame of reference. Short fiction routinely converses with its ghosts and Kafka’s presence is almost that of a recurring character, most conspicuously in The Dung Beetle, an overt reference to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, with the concerns of the changeling Gregor Samsa, conceived during the First World War, transposed onto those of an Iraqi now residing in Finland, inside a ball of dung. In relating his fictional counterpoint’s story, Blasim makes what I take to be a more direct authorial interjection:

A young Finnish novelist once asked me, with a look of genuine curiosity, ‘How did you read Kafka? Did you read him in Arabic? How could you discover Kafka that way?’ I felt as if I were a suspect in a crime and the Finnish novelist was the detective, and that Kafka was a Western treasure that Ali Baba, the Iraqi, had stolen. In the same way, I might have asked, ‘Did you read Kafka in Finnish?’

Such is the sense of dislocation and depersonalisation, of inurement to brutality and reduction to absurdity, reading Kafka seems less of a choice or privilege than a routine motor function. The Dung Beetle quotes in full Kafka’s Little Fable in which a mouse articulates the essential condition of the Kafkaesque protagonist:

The mouse said, ‘Alas, the world gets smaller every day. It used to be so big that I was frightened. I would run and run, and I was pleased when I finally saw the walls appear on the horizon in every direction, but these long walls run fast to meet each other, and here I am at the end of the room, and in front of me I can see a trap that I must run into.,

‘You only have to change direction,’ said the cat, and tore the mouse up.

The earlier Ali Baba reference directs us to Blasim’s coupling of Kafka with Sheherazade and the One Thousand and One Nights tales, for which the narrative of the young bride using her powers of storytelling to stave off the daily threat of execution is the framing device, an appropriate analogy when claiming asylum. scheherazade-and-shahriyar The deadpan depravity in The Hole exemplifies how these strands become twisted together. The narrator, on the run from masked gunmen as chaos greets the collapse of the government, falls into a hole and encounters a “decrepit old man”, claiming to be a djinni (genie) and calmly carving chunks of flesh to eat from the corpse of a soldier who has previously fallen down the hole. There is no escape and the company only emphasises how divorced this place is from the reality the narrator has known.

In the 1001 Nights tale of Sinbad’s fourth voyage – several years into his latest enforced sojourn in a land in which he has initially been made to feel welcome and has become happily married – he learns of the bizarre local custom that, when a married man or woman dies, the living spouse is also thrown into the huge pit, that serves as a mass grave, accompanied by the humane provision of a spartan packed lunch for pre-death nourishment. Sinbad’s wife falls ill and dies and, sure enough, both her body and the breathing, protesting form of Sinbad are thrown in the pit. Sinbad survives in his pit of corpses by clubbing any newly-widowed arrival to death with a leg-bone and taking their bread and water for sustenance. These echoes cement Blasim’s storytelling within the traditions of the region but the stories that fuel his writing are timeless and universal, relating to the stark choices facing humans when everything that betokens their humanity has been stripped away. Italo Calvino is another writer cited, via his Mr Palomar character, who painstakingly seeks to quantify the contents of a disparate universe; when ‘Hassan Blasim’ appears as a character, shifting the boundaries of reality in Why Don’t You Write A Novel Instead Of Talking About All These Characters?, there are shades of Paul Auster’s introspections about the nature of truth and story. Where – in, for example, the meta-gumshoe story City Of Glass, itself Edgar Allen Poe’s The Man Of The Crowd by way of, yes, Kafka – Auster will use a character called ‘Paul Auster’ to interrogate the identity of the “I” in whose Point of View the story is being told, it’s couched within the ‘what-if?’ framework we might expect to find in any fictional narrative. Blasim operates from a starting-point in which life has already become that fiction. This is an object lesson for those who assume that it would be enough to transcribe and dust-jacket the extraordinary circumstances of their own lives in order to produce a compelling narrative. Blasim’s life enters Blasim’s fiction as a kind of exorcism: you don’t want to explore how much is actually a record of the truth because you can’t bear to look. In Why Don’t You Write A Novel…?, the narrator makes a prison visit to the man with whom he made the journey to escape Iraq and claim asylum in Europe. Along the way, this companion, Adel Salim, inexplicably murdered a drowning man whom they had met on the refugee trail:

‘Okay, I don’t understand, Adel,’ I said. ‘What were you thinking? Why did you strangle him? What I’m saying may be mad, but why didn’t you let him drown by himself?’
After a short while, he answered hatefully from behind the bars. ‘You’re an arsehole and a fraud. Your name’s Hassan Blasim and you claim to be Salem Hussein. You come here and lecture me. Go fuck yourself, you prick.’

The narrator, aware only of his work as a translator working in the reception centre for asylum seekers, retreats in confusion and struggles to recover memories from before his border crossing. In an encounter on a train, a man, carrying a mouse, identifies him as the author of several stories, including some of those contained in this collection. I don’t know whether Blasim was setting out to articulate this but there’s a particular bleakness to the writing life when you feel you’re holding the weight of all the blood and bones in the world but the only place you have to set it down is something so light and flimsy as the page of a book.

APTOPIX Iraq ViolenceFor all the postmodernism and the literary conversations, and the insect and, for Dear Beto, canine narrators, we are taken goosebump-close to what happens in everyday human lives in a protracted war situation, with Jonathan Wright’s translations ensuring no walls remain between these characters and the reader. The Iraqi Christ is eye-catchingly provocative as a title for the book but the story bearing that name provides a more straightforward explanation: it’s a reference to Daniel, an Iraqi soldier who’s a practising Christian and committed gum-chewer so known to his fellow soldiers as the Chewgum Christ, Christ for short. The story, though, we come to realise, is a kind of gospel told by a beyond-the-grave narrator who relates the miraculous, almost unconscious prescience with which this Iraqi Christ manages to evade death, to the point that he takes on a talismanic role among his comrades. A life avoiding death isn’t quite the same as a life, though, and there is sacrifice and redemption to follow in an ending that is built on tragic irony but has a strangely uplifting choreography to it.

Further evidence of unexpected uplift comes in the final story, A Thousand and One Knives, a magic realist story of a team of street magicians whose ability to make knives disappear into thin air and then bring them back operates as a twin process of exorcism (again) and healing. The team have found one another through their gifts and rub along as a dysfunctional family group. In an attempt to understand what the trick of disappearing and reappearing knives might mean, the narrator is charged with researching the subject:

It was religious books that I first examined to find references to the trick. Most of the houses in our sector and around had a handful of books and other publications, primarily the Quran, the sayings of the Prophet, stories about Heaven and Hell, and texts about prophets and infidels. It’s true I found many references to knives in these books but they struck me as just laughable. They only had knives for jihad, for treachery, for torture and terror. Swords and blood. Symbols of desert battles and the battles of the future. Victory banners stamped with the name of God, and knives of war.

In the face of this understanding of knives, the group use their skills very little for show and not at all for profit but as a compulsion, like the stories of Sheherazade, because there are things that need to happen, because not doing it is too horrific to contemplate. When we learn of the baby born to the narrator and Souad, the only woman in the group and the only one able to make knives reappear, we see that they have cut themselves into one another’s flesh as well, in acts of transformative love and friendship that – remarkably, by the end of this remarkable collection – allow the reader to emerge with hope still intact, battered, but somehow reinforced.
Hassan Blasim The Iraqi Christ (4)

The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright, supported by the English PEN Writers In Translation programme, is published by Comma Press and available in book and e-book form.

Gina Rowlands (passenger) and Winona Ryder (driver) in Jim Jarmusch's "Night On Earth" (1991)

I don’t like it when somebody comes up to me the next day and says, “I really dug your message, man; I really dug your play. I cried.” I like it when people come up to me the next day, or a week later and they say, “Hey, man, I saw your play… what happened?”

In Tootsie, Bill Murray, as Jeff Slater, takes it upon himself to speak for playwrights and the relationship they wish to have with their audiences. Short story writers are also addressing “people who are alive on the planet” and we don’t mind the “what happened?” response either. Cinema resides far more squarely within the mass market where an ambiguous resolution can be a kiss of death to a work. Indeed, it’s a medium that seems much happier to have, as a resolution, a kiss. So what happens when the redemptive arcs and neat denouements of cinema collide with the unremarked-upon epiphanies and asymmetrical narrative patterns of short fiction?

Lyle Lovett in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" (1993). Lovett's character comes from Raymond Carver's "A Small Good Thing"


Of course, this is a false dichotomy. Short stories have always found a role in the development of cinema. When the journey is from page to screen, it’s not difficult to see the value in adapting from a short story: you will generally find a strong story dynamic in the presence of a distinctive central character, relationship or setting; the plot will invariably condense narratives that may be opened up with the virtue of screen time; and the chances are you won’t be dealing with a work fixed in the canon of Great Literature and/or in the wider popular consciousness whereby liberties taken, chunks taken out and necessary compressions are guaranteed to provoke debate.

Short stories are safer ground for adaptation but they’re also instructive to film-makers. When I floated a question about the traffic between short story and film on Facebook this week, the terrific, erudite discussion (thanks to all!) threw up examples spanning the globe and the history of the medium, of films and film-makers drawing from specific short stories. This included films which expanded and substantially re-worked a short fiction original – for example, Hanif Kureishi’s melancholic father-son study, My Son The Fanatic,

Om Puri and Rachel Griffiths in Hanif Kureishi and Udayan Prasad's "My Son The Fanatic" (1997)

which he adapted for the 1997 Udayan Prasad-directed film of the same name but with greater jeopardy and more transgressive romance at the centre of the drama – and films like the Altman/Carver compendium, Short Cuts. A good proportion of the films cited came from longer works – novellas, short novels and frame narratives (by Chaucer and Boccaccio, for example, not to mention the Arabian nights tales) – and some of the stories (Angela Carter the shining example) were themselves adaptations of traditional folk tales.

This isn’t, though, a one-way street. It’s possible to find films which, in varying ways, seek to use cinematic language to compose the equivalent of short stories (if we regard the full-length feature as the equivalent of a novel). The idea is given free air miles by the steadily growing franchise of producer Emmanuel Benbihy‘s so far very patchy “I Love You” films. With Paris Je T’Aime and New York I Love You already completed and Jerusalem and Shanghai versions in production, this is cinema with the short story as the high concept, with several teams of international directors, writers and actors composing moody vignettes relating to love in the city. Comparison may be drawn with the Comma Press Cities in Short Fiction series, with titles such as the one to which I contributed, The Book Of Liverpool (which includes Clive Barker’s short story that provided the basis for the Candyman horror series). Other Comma titles like Re-Berth, Decapolis and Elsewhere, taking stories from towns and cities in different countries, could provide parallels to Night On Earth, the Jim Jarmusch quintet of vignettes taking us on a series of taxi journeys in LA, New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki. In the cases of these films – as well as the Scorsese/Coppola/Allen triptych New York Stories, Ealing’s 1945 Dead Of Night collection of ghost stories, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Abbas Kiorastami’s Ten and Woody Allen’s Radio Days – the device of the shorter narrative is the foundation on which the film is written and directed.

What techniques can we detect in the transition between short story and film adaptation? How does the language of the short story translate into that of the cinema? And to what extent does what is suggested or left to the imagination on the page find exposure on the screen? In the other direction, how successful is cinema when it aspires to the concentration and ambiguity common to short stories? Reel Time Short Stories joins the other occasional series, Cafe Shorts and Real Time Reads, as a platform for discussing the interface between short fiction and cinema, as we look for new ways to understand the mechanisms and mysteries that come with reading and writing short stories. If you have a particular interest in film, keep your eye out for alerts with the Reel Time Short Stories label. Your input is welcome at any time: how successfully do you think these two form interconnect and what are your favourite / least favourite examples of short stories in the cinema?

Harryhausen meets Sheherazade in Nathan Juran's "7th Voyage of Sinbad" (1958)

After the emotion of the weekend and the discussion of the incendiary lyricism and revolutionary influence of Gil Scott-Heron, stepping back into the park bench and coffee shop world of the short story might feel like being doused with freshly-squeezed whimsy. In a publishing culture that regards the short story as the Huggies Pull-Up to the novel’s Calvin Klein boxers, it would appear an unlikely detour. Moreover, if we’re taking the Gil Scott-Heron suggestion, from Delta Man (Where I’m Coming From, to “put a little revolution in your life,” surely our first thought should be for the kinetic energy of the spoken word?

Here is the short answer: no art form, genre of art form or single work of art ever changed the world. Art has influenced consciousness, educated and agitated; it has provided rallying points, anthems and eloquent critiques, and sometimes it’s said things like “a change is gonna come” that, when those changes did come, seemed like the argument that had finally won the day. But we know that the process of change is more gradual and complex than that. Let’s be honest: if everybody knew that you could create a work of art, any art, that was guaranteed to make a radical change to the world you’re living in, Hitler would have stuck to the painting and Margaret Thatcher would have learned to play the banjo.

And yet…when our warm breath hits the cold air, there is a change. Whether we regard Sheherazade as the poster girl for the performative act or the short story, her bedtime tales fulfilled an agitprop function of keeping her alive, which is as radical a change as you need to make when there’s an axe being sharpened on the other side of sunrise. Incrementally, the bigger change – calling off the threat of execution – was achieved. When I first began performing poetry, the attainability of these incremental changes was a large part of the appeal. It was self-evident that more could be achieved in fifteen minutes in front of an audience of 50 than over several months of attempting to have one piece of work accepted by a publishing outlet. That my perspective has changed over the last twenty years can be attributed to any number of personal and historical factors, but the point I wish to tease out from this sketch of my personal development is one of technique and it’s relevant now while our thoughts are on a giant of spoken word.

The question is whether there is an area of short story technique that can give a printed story the kinetic properties of the performative moment that are routine within the spoken word format, and it’s one I’ll be contemplating as the blog continues to develop. What I’m interested in is the idea that there is something peculiar to short fiction that can work performatively. I’m inclined to discount first person narrative because, while this bears obvious characteristics of performance, being located in the oral storytelling tradition, it’s as suited to the novel as the shorter form.

Where we may begin to detect a technique that’s both a crucial strength of short fiction and a parallel to the molten energy of the live performance is in this blog’s regular fixation: the rendering of life in a sort of real time, whereby we can see, in the emotional choreography of the characters, a performance of what it is to be human. This is mimesis, whereby we experience the narrative, rather than having it relayed to us. When the topical issues have rolled on by and the world has not changed, other than in minor increments, we still need to deal with forces that act to reduce or refuse our common humanity, so the ability to place your reader within the emotional and sensory world of the characters is not just good writing, it’s an act of radicalism. The reason we keep going back to Chekhov is because he understood this. His writing captured snowflakes. It held in place for our inspection the moments of inspiration or heartbreak, and it lifted out of the fleeting the lives of the ordinary, the unconventional and the disappointed. So a story, in which love realises far too late that it ever had the potential to be requited, gives us a depiction of what it means to let life happen without taking action and it’s as political as a clenched fist salute:

Ilovaiskaya did not say anything. When the sleigh started moving and was going round a large snowdrift, she glanced back at Likharyov, looking as if she wanted to say something to him. He ran after her but she did not say a word, and just looked at him through long eyelashes, on which hung snowflakes…
[Anton Chekhov, On The Road]

The intimacy of those snowflakes work like the flecks of spittle that fly from a performer’s lips onto the front row of the audience. This writing is alive.


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